Wildfire Risks of Proposed Water Quality & Tree Protection Ordinance

 March 23, 2019

Board of Supervisors

County of Napa California

                                                            RE: Proposed Water Quality & Tree Protection Ordinance

Dear Supervisors:

Please vote “no” on this proposed ordinance.

It increases risks of wildfires, is at odds with wildfire/forestry policies of the State of California, takes property, and is ambiguous. No evidence of contributions, or review, by scientists is visible in the public record of developing the proposed ordinance. It is also contrary to advice in Living with Wildfire in Napa County, which you sponsor.

1.  Wildfires are THE land use problem in Napa County, as they are for much of California.

The October 2017 wildfires burned one-third of Napa County, forced evacuation of Calistoga and many rural areas and killed seven.

Napa County is a clear example of the challenges of land-use decisions at the wildland-urban interface, where wildfires occur regularly.

The Strategic Plan adopted in January 2019 and this proposed ordinance do not mention wildfire as a recurring feature of Napa County, nor do they seek to address wildfire risk. Instead, the proposed ordinance increases risks of intense wildfires by increasing vegetation.

Claims to protect water quality with the regulations of the proposed ordinance are advanced without recognition of effects of wildfires.

Increased erosion, mud flows and land slips are widely known risks after wildfires. Moreover, the Watershed Emergency Response Team (WERT) reports for the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires each provided estimates of post fire erosion. This specific knowledge of effects of the 2017 fires in Napa County is not acknowledged. The Tubbs Fire WERT also includes a report on measurements after the Valley Fire in Lake County:

“The study being conducted at Boggs Mountain Demonstration State Forest after the 2015 Valley Fire provide post-fire erosion data. …  Initial observations indicate that these rates likely doubled or tripled during the second 2016-2017 winter season (i.e., 20-30 tons per acre). ….” http://www.fire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/Watershed_reports/20171115_TubbsWERT.pdf page 34

2. Napa County’s choices are exactly the opposite of those pursued by the State of California in management of wildfire risks in forested areas. Governor Gavin Newsom recognized that California needs to better manage wildfire risks, signing executive order N-05-19 on his second day in office. Noting that “six of the top 10 most destructive fires in State history have occurred in the last two years…” Two of the fires cited — Tubbs and Nuns — burned in Napa. So too did Number 14— Atlas. The three fires burned a total of 72,633 acres in Napa County.

In response to N-05-19, CAL FIRE identified “administrative, regulatory and policy actions that can be taken in the next 12 months to begin systematically addressing community vulnerability and wildfire fuel buildup…”  They also identified 35 highest priority fire risk reduction projects, including fuel breaks, fuel reduction and defensible zones.[1] On March 22, 2019, Governor Newsom proclaimed a State of Emergency suspending a number of state statutes, rules, regulations and requirements, plus other actions, to accelerate completion of the fire risk reduction projects.

3. Blanket prohibitions on improvements on slopes greater than 30% and new setback requirements for class 3 ephemeral streams affect vast areas of Napa County. The provisions are a taking of rights of current owners to use, improve and protect the value of their property.

Under the proposed ordinance, some properties could not be a site for a single-family residence or any other improvement.

A now unimproved property with no economic value from legally-possible improvements is worse than valueless because of liability risks inherent in ownership.

Additionally, there is no evidence of analyses of the distribution of the costs of pursuing claimed goals of the ordinance among all properties in Napa County. Improvements to properties which already include a residence, vineyard or other improvement, are prohibited on slopes greater than 30% or within new setbacks from ephemeral streams, inequitably reducing property values.

4. The Ordinance is also unintelligible because of conflicts and ambiguities. A reasonable land-owner cannot anticipate the ways in which provisions will be interpreted or applied. Additionally, the discretion assigned to the Director of Planning is not anchored in sufficient specific language. No property owner can anticipate how the discretion will be applied.

For example, the proposed Ordinance includes two discussions of “defensible space.”

The Section 18.108.030 definition:


“Defensible space” means the area within the perimeter of a parcel, development, neighborhood or community where basic wildland fire protection practices and measures are implemented, providing the key point of defense from an approaching wildfire or defense against encroaching wildfires or escaping structure fires. The perimeter as used in this definition is the area encompassing the parcel or parcels proposed for construction and/or development, excluding the physical structure itself. The area is characterized by the establishment and maintenance of emergency vehicle access, emergency water reserves, street names and building identification, and fuel modification measures.


The Section 18.850.050 exemption:


H. For existing legally constructed structures, the Creation and/or maintenance of defensible space or the implementation of fire management strategies consistent with the Napa County Fire Hazard Abatement Ordinance (County Code Chapter 8.36). In the event of a conflict between this chapter, Chapter 8.36, and/or Public Resources Code Section 4291, Chapter 8.36 shall control.


Chapter 8.36 is brief and becomes operational by incorporating standards of  the Napa County Defensible Space Guidelines             https://www.countyofnapa.org/DocumentCenter/View/825/Defensible-Space-Guidelines-PDF   The standards promulgated are 30' fuel exclusion and 30-100' fuel reduction.


How will these sections be applied? The perimeter of defensible space in the definition is the parcel boundary, but, in the exemption, 100’ from an existing structure. If the intention is to apply different policies to “proposed” vs. “existing” structures, why? Fires will not differentiate among structures now existing and those proposed in the future. A significant body of expert opinion recommends managing risk of fire risk well beyond 100’ of structures, emphasizing variety in tree and shrub coverage and limiting opportunities of high-intensity crown fires to patches.[2] How could that approach be accommodated under the proposed Ordinance?

Any property owner turning to the guidance found in “Living With Fire In Napa County,” published by the Napa Communities Firewise Foundation, sponsored by Napa County, CalFire, the City of Napa, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Pacific Gas & Electric and more, would find advice inconsistent with the premises of this proposed ordinance and not allowable under the defensible space exemptions.[3]

Living with Fire in Napa County recommends defensible spaces of 150 feet plus for moderately steep (21-40%) or extremely steep (+40%) slopes. It also recommends “patchy” trees and vegetation, with distances of twice to six times canopy diameter between shrubs and 20’ to 40’ between canopies of trees. Charmingly, but distressingly, these recommendations are advanced as “…suggestions made by local firefighters with experience in protecting homes from wildfires. They do not take precedence over local ordinances…” This proposed ordinance does not comport with advice from firefighters developed through a County-sponsored process.


In conclusion, this Ordinance should be rejected. It is not needed, it increases risks of wildfires, is at odds with policies of the State of California, it takes property, and it is fatally ambiguous and intelligible.

It is also inconsistent with the best available science and advice based on local fire- fighting experience.

Please reject this ordinance. Address land uses recognizing the inevitability of wildfires. Use the best available science, engaging named science advisors. Enlist property owners in achieving a sustainable future for Napa County.


John Kirlin

Dry Creek Road, Napa, CA 94558


Kirlin has owned rural properties in Napa for four decades. He is also an experienced professional in making and implementing public policies, serving as Executive Director of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (2005-07) and of Delta Vision (2007-08) for the State of California, as a consultant to governments, non-profits and firms, and an expert witness for and against the State of California. Dr. Kirlin has decades of experience analyzing, writing and teaching about public policies, especially focused on California.  

[1] . California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Community Wildfire Prevention & Mitigation Report. In Response to Executive Order N-05-19. February 22, 2019    http://www.fire.ca.gov/downloads/45-Day%20Report-FINAL.pdf


[2]. For overview, recommendations and examples, see, Pacific Northwest Extension (OR, WA, ID) https://knowyourforest.org/sites/default/files/documents/Reducing_Fire_Risk_full.pdf    

A recent research article analyzing experience in Australia provides strong evidence of higher risk of full-coverage canopy – as intended by the proposed Ordinance – vs “patchy” canopy coverage: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204618300598

[3] . See: http://www.napafirewise.org/Doc/Living%20w%20Fire%20Brochure%20.pdf


pKilkus@gmail.com                       © Peter Kilkus 2018